The new Welsh Government has promised to ‘review adult education to increase the number of adults learning in Wales.’ The commitment, made in the Programme for Government and promised in the Welsh Labour manifesto in May this year, will be an important opportunity to develop a new approach to adult education and lifelong learning.
As part of our work for the European Agenda for Adult Learning we explored some of the areas the review will need to cover at a roundtable discussion with partners from across the sector in Wales and elsewhere. Here are some of the key messages from the roundtable.
- Widen participation, don’t just focus on numbers: evidence from the Learning and Work Participation Survey shows individuals with the lowest levels of qualifications are the least likely to be engaged in learning. In short, those who need it the most are the least likely to be benefiting from adult education. Focusing on increasing the overall number of learners is a positive step, but it is essential to make sure that support is targeted at addressing inequalities in access amongst disadvantaged groups and communities.
- Not just a case of build it and they will come: the focus of the last Welsh Government was on developing a new right to lifelong learning. Progress on this stalled during the pandemic and the review will be an opportunity to look at this again. However, the infrastructure that sits behind any right or promise of access is most important. A key question for the review is how to invest across the whole system so that there are flexible, multiple entry points, as well as opportunities for progression at every stage. The test will be whether individuals can access the opportunity of learning in every community: whether that is within a reasonable geographical distance, online, full or part-time, and at different levels and for different reasons. There must be ways to support accredited and non-accredited learningHowever, building the infrastructure is only one step. A key barrier to adults learning is that many people don’t see the value in it. Social action and a continued focus on inspiring adults to learn, and to see the benefits of learning are important alongside a commitment to make learning more accessible. The two need to go hand in hand.
- A broad focus: a key flaw in previous adult education interventions has been to focus too heavily on skills for work and to neglect some of the broader values of learning. One lesson from the pandemic was that people have a range of motivations to learn, including to make connections with others and to improve their health and well-being. The review must consider how learning can help build better, stronger communities. As promised by the previous Education Minister it should connect the adult education offer to the purposes of the new school curriculum and help to develop all of us as engaged citizens and learners for life.
- Evidence base: finally, it is important that we define, measure, and understand progress. This must mean a stronger evidence base to understand how and where people are participating in learning, their motivations and their barriers, and the progress being made with different groups and in different communities.
The pandemic meant priorities in education have focused elsewhere over the last eighteen months, but the reasons why we need a strong and diverse adult learning sector are as important as ever. Our society is still ageing, there is still a democratic and civic deficit, technology is still reshaping our work and our lives, our mental health and well-being still need support, and there are still big inequalities between different groups and communities. These challenges haven’t gone away. The five years of this new Senedd term is the opportunity for us to rebuild an adult education system that is fit for the challenges of the future.